Thumbs Up: One seriously quick grocery getter.
Thumbs Down: Passive solar heating cabin.
Buy This Car If: You want a truly entertaining small sedan daily driver.
If you look at the numbers on the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, they aren’t all that impressive. Sure, it’s got 237 horsepower, but it also weighs nearly 3,500 pounds and costs $30k by the time you add a few options. There are plenty of other amusing rides for even less money, so if all you’re doing is comparison shopping online, it’s easy to overlook the Lancer Ralliart. Drive one, on the other hand, and you won’t believe how good the car is, or how much better it feels than the numbers would indicate. Off-idle stumble in first gear aside, this car is seriously quick, with a rock-solid chassis capable of taking all you’re willing to dish out. It’s not an Evo, but it is a more attractively priced, more comfortable sedan that’s a better real-world choice for your daily commute.
If you look at the lower end models in the Lancer lineup, they’re best described as “bland”. They’re not unpleasantly styled, but they’re utterly anonymous, and the neighbors will just assume you’ve purchased a two year old Nissan / Toyota / Hyundai if you roll up in a Lancer ES or GTS. Roll up in a Lancer Ralliart, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get their attention. The exterior looks like a slightly-less aggressive version of the Evo, and by slightly I mean one or two percent. The front end rocks Mitsubishi’s classic “angry Samurai” grill, just like the Evo but with a slightly less chiseled front fascia. The hood has functional heat extractors, which tell others that this is not your standard compact sedan. Side skirts and a high character line sweep down the side of the car, and the rear includes (for better or worse) a wing that’s only slightly more subdued than the basket-handle on the Evo GSR. Opt for the Ralliart Touring Package, and the giant rear wing is replaced with the tasteful rear lip spoiler you see on my tester (just like the Evo MR). Dual exhausts are another clue that the Lancer Ralliart is more about enjoying the drive than it is about optimizing fuel economy.
I give Mitsubishi a big thumbs up on the exterior styling, which is aggressive without screaming “boy racer”. Chrome trim is restricted to the grille surround and a thin strip atop the doors. The B-pillar is blacked out, but Mitsubishi used a thick, matte black paint to cover it; it looks good from a distance, but up close it gives the impression of a rattlecan spray job. Gloss black would look much better than matte in this case, but that’s easily fixed with some sandpaper, masking tape and a can of good quality high gloss black paint.
Inside, it’s clear that the Lancer Ralliart is a price-point-built car. That’s not to say the interior is cheap or uncomfortable, since it’s very well laid out for spirited driving and comfortable enough for day long road trips. Aside from leather seating, there are very few luxury touches in the car, because all the money went into the drivetrain (and it was money well spent). Expect a lot of hard black plastic on the dash broken up by a high gloss, patterned gray trim strip. Climate and radio controls are where you expect to find them, and the Rockford Fosgate sound system sounds halfway decent (especially if you like your tunes on the bass-heavy side). If there’s a weak point on the interior, I’d call it the combination of windshield and glass; the rake of the windshield and depth of the dash combine to create a huge, passive solar heating element. Even in ninety degree temps, the A/C was working hard to keep the car at a comfortable temperature, and you could feel the heat radiating off the dash. I assume that Mitsubishi doesn’t use an IR shielding layer in the windshield, so my advice is to park in the shade on hot days (or use a reflective windshield cover).
The analog tach and speedometer are enclosed in silver-ringed pods, and an LCD display between the two gives the driver a vast amount of information. It also shows a bar graph temp gauge and fuel gauge, but here’s a heads up: the fuel gauge jumps in pretty substantial increments, so you probably want to switch over the the “Distance To Empty” display once you hit a quarter tank.
Up front, the standard leather seats offered sufficient bolstering for enthusiastic cornering. They’re manually adjustable, not powered, but they do include heating elements for winter comfort. They lack any kind of lumbar support, but that was never an issue for me; even a five-hour stint behind the wheel wasn’t tiring, so your daily commute in a Lancer Ralliart would be plenty comfortable.
The rear seats are good for two adults, but three would be a stretch for any length of time. Rear seats aren’t well bolstered, so enthusiastic driving should be limited to solo or two-person trips. The Lancer gives you a surprising amount of rear seat leg and head room for a compact car, so even six-foot-tall friends won’t complain too much about not getting shotgun.
Under the hood of the Lancer Ralliart is a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four cylinder good for the aforementioned 237 horsepower and 253 ft lb of torque. Your only transmission choice is Mitsubishi’s superb Sportronic dual-clutch gearbox, which can be shifted via the lever or via steering column mounted paddle shifters. Power goes to all four wheels via an active center differential, and the front gets a helical limited slip diff while the rear gets a mechanical limited slip differential. The net result is that the car stays planted no matter how hard you get on the throttle, and the Lancer Ralliart is capable of a sub six-second zero to sixty sprint. There are two driving modes (Normal and Sport) as well, and toggling up Sport delays your shifts and maximizes throttle response at the expense of fuel economy. There are three settings (Tarmac, Gravel and Snow) for the center differential as well, ensuring that your Lancer Ralliart is optimized for the best performance in any kind of weather. Given the capabilities of the car, I’d call fuel economy reasonable: the EPA rates it at 17 MPG city and 25 MPG highway, and I saw up to 26.6 highway and 18.8 around town.
Speaking of weather, I had the chance to drive the Lancer Ralliart at speed in some fairly heinous rainstorms. I never noticed any compromise in traction, and the car was completely willing to go as fast as I wanted. In dry weather and from a standing start, there is a little bit of a stumble off-idle, but the car comes alive once the turbo spools up at around 2,750 RPM. Gear changes are astonishingly quick, on par with Porsche’s PDK transmission (by my seat-of-the-pants testing, at least), and the Lancer Ralliart loves to be driven hard. Push it into a corner, and the car smoothly transitions from understeer to a balanced four wheel drift to oversteer, just like my old Eclipse GSX did. For a non-purpose built car, the Lancer Ralliart has some astonishingly high limits, and in stock form will run out of tire grip long before the suspension gives up. My complaints about the engine and drivetrain were few: I’m wondering if some tuning would eliminate the hesitation off-idle, and the paddle shifters really need to be mounted on the steering wheel instead of on the steering column. Ordinarily, I’d say that a manual transmission option would be nice, but Mitsubishi’s Sportronic transmission is so good that you really won’t miss it.
As optioned, my Lancer Ralliart tester had a sticker price of $31,355, including a destination charge of $760 and the $3,100 Ralliart Touring Package (leather seats, Rockford Fosgate audio system, 6 CD changer, HID lighting, rain sensing wipers, auto headlamp control, heated front seats, power sunroof, rear lip spoiler). By comparison, a similarly equipped Subaru WRX Limited would sticker at $30,462, but that lacks the dual-clutch gearbox of the Lancer Ralliart. Ford’s AWD Fusion Sport with the 3.5-liter V-6 would sticker at $31,195 in similar trim, but it’s not going to be as quick or nimble as the Lancer Ralliart.
So who should buy a Lancer Ralliart? Anyone who really wants a brand new Evo, but doesn’t have the price of entry or doesn’t want to pay the insurance premium. You’re buying an economy car with a great suspension and drivetrain and a very good engine, so don’t expect ride comfort on par with a buddy’s Acura TSX. On the other hand, don’t expect that same TSX to keep up with you in the twisties, unless it’s driven by Lewis Hamilton. In the end it comes down to this: if how your ride goes, stops and handles is more important than luxury or amenities, the Lancer Raliart needs to be on your short list.